That was how it was sometimes, in the archive. Big discoveries sandwiched between trash. The day-to-day touching the phenomenal.
Kate Aitken, now an ex-journalist (copy editor), has a chance for a clean slate, it’s time to leave New York, which has become contaminated for her. Kate’s life has imploded, and a very important man has taken measures to make sure she does not find work anywhere. When Theo Brand, son of famed photographer Miranda Brand, hires her to archive his late mother’s work it is a chance for her to start fresh- in California. Her aunt is there, which is both a good thing and trying. It won’t be easy, not with a woman whose death is surrounded by mystery and rumors, many that follow Theo like a dark shadow. He confesses his mother was a bit of a pack rat, so one never knows what treasure or trash Kate will uncover. Theo himself isn’t the easiest man to figure out, nor the warmest and it certainly doesn’t help when her own aunt is sure he is worse than the locals say. That maybe he was involved in his mother’s mysterious death, despite being a child when she died.
Her own life in a tailspin of sorts, Kate wonders if taking this job makes her vulnerable to danger. Sifting through the house most people would kill to snoop through, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Could the many rumors and conspiracies be born from truth, isn’t that often the case? Doesn’t her own life have its own secrets and lies? Hasn’t she learned that a man can hide his dark nature behind his success, wealth and name? Is she attracted to Theo, or are the intense emotions, racing heart she feels around him a warning? After-all, she knows that attraction and panic often set off the same feelings within a person. Could he be as bad as everyone claims? It’s hard to think so seeing him interact with his children, even if her presence seems to upset something in him.
Excavating Miranda Brand’s past is an emotional journey. Despite her awe inspiring talent, behind the artist was a woman who was falling apart, questioning herself, coping with the fragility of her mind. Everything Kate discovers feels like an exposure of a woman who wanted her private life to remain sealed. Art should stand alone, not be influenced by the person behind it. Instead of a contained woman, Kate discovers confessions, and painful admissions. Here was a woman who found mothering challenging and her marriage no better as it was under intense strain. A woman lacking much needed compassion and support, instead had a husband who seemed both exhausted by her needs and competitive over her work. Miranda missed who she was before the life she and her husband Jake created together. What made her decide to leave it, in such a dramatic, horrific fashion? Will Kate uncover more than Theo wants her too?
Their relationship is unbalanced already, Kate arrives with her own future in ruins while Theo appears to be a man who has his life together. There belies a coldness in his desire to wrap up his mother’s life, now that his father is gone and he is free to take charge of the past and all it’s dirty secrets. For Theo, Miranda wasn’t a famous artist who died at the height of her career, she was his mother, at times a distant star physically and mentally. Why does he resent her? Seem to hate her?
Answers may lie in Miranda’s diary, a discovery Kate intends to keep from Theo. It soon becomes obvious he has ulterior motives, could well be misleading and using her- but why? Her own wounds are fresh, the remnants of her own therapy sessions are a lifeboat to cling to as she sorts through Miranda’s past. Kate’s own narrative is as elusive, a thing we glimpse in starts and stops. Everything Miranda was suffering, particularly sensitive information that got out in public, is easy for Kate to relate to- however uncomfortable it feels. There are so many ways a woman is stripped of her armor.
Two women, decades separating them, face metamorphism of the self. This is who I wanted to be, this is who life demanded me to become. For Miranda, her husband is unforgiving, treating her after her unraveling as something he is chained too. Kate’s fall from grace is a different sort of humiliation, an utter failure of the self. There are abuses both women suffer at the hands of men with the upper hand. For women, it is all about how people interpret you, be it your behavior, decisions, weaknesses, mental state or refusal to give in when it’s demanded of you.
Death is silence, but Miranda could still have the last word. Does that frighten Theo? What if the truth challenges the story men, like he and his father, have controlled? What about Kate and her own voice, her own past? Is it wise to get tangled in desire for Theo? What if… what if Miranda was murdered?
What kept me reading was Miranda’s story and how she was mistreated, demeaned and misinterpreted- even after her death. Though the person hardest on her, as is often the case with women, was herself. What it nails is how narrative can alter lives, for better or worse. Sometimes the truth must lie in wait, but it will have it’s pound of flesh. Sometimes it pushes us to be more too. Kate was harder for me to bond with, but Miranda- I think Miranda echoes what many women go through and feel too ashamed to give voice. Theo was important, but he wasn’t the heart of the story for me anymore than the attraction between he and Kate. I was in it for Miranda. You could feel the pain of feeling judged, especially for things you cannot help. How easy it is to fall from grace for showing yourself as a fragile human being and why people try and hide when they feel themselves slipping. The breaking is so much worse when the one who is meant to be your anchor fails you. A strong character in Miranda if the others lacked substance. She was worth reading!
Publication Date: April 28. 2020
Farrar, Straus and Giroux